All of us were horrified by the murders at the Washington Navy Yard this week. Once again, in the aftermath of a shooting, a new installment of the debate about gun laws has broken out. But what we really need is a new discussion about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we want to be.
It’s no secret which side I’m on in any debate involving the Second Amendment (or the whole Constitution, for that matter). We call Alaska America’s Last Frontier, and firearms are a big part of our lifestyle here because they are part of our frontier tradition. And, as I tell my daughters, the ability to use a firearm responsibly and to defend yourself is also part of our heritage as American women.
The iconic musket over the fireplace wasn’t just for the menfolk on the frontier. Those stalwart women who crossed oceans and wilderness to settle our country knew how to protect themselves and their families. (One of my favorite scenes in the miniseries John Adams is when Abigail Adams, alone with her children in besieged Massachusetts while her husband is away at the Continental Congress, shoulders the family musket to protect her little ones when she hears the distant sounds of battle. That’s our heritage, ladies.)
Todd and I have taught our kids how to handle firearms responsibly, just as my dad taught me. In fact, we took our girls for a special hunt on Mother’s Day this year at our cabin looking out at the distant majestic peak of Mt. McKinley, and we had a blast teaching twelve-year-old Piper mounted shooting in warm Montana this summer.
I’m proud of my frontier heritage, and I’ll fight vehemently against anything that would limit the constitutional rights of Americans. But I can certainly sympathize with the many well-meaning Americans who desperately feel the need to find a way to prevent these senseless killings. Who among us doesn’t feel sadness, anger, and even despair after these tragedies?
But we must remember that emotion won’t make anybody safer or protect our rights. Beware of politicians who exploit our emotions in an attempt to pass laws that even they admit wouldn’t have prevented the violence.
CNN’s Don Lemon recently saw the light on this issue and highlighted the Centers for Disease Control study showing that so-called military assault rifles account for a small fraction of gun violence. The overwhelming majority of gun-related deaths are inflicted with handguns, but a ban on handguns is not only politically untenable; it would also hinder the ability of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves (especially Americans who live in troubled urban areas where the police are slow to respond to emergency calls).
Instead of offering real solutions based on facts, reactionary politicians offer us the politics of emotion, which is the opposite of leadership. It is the manipulation of the people by the political class for their own political ends. It is so very self-serving, but, worse, it is destructive.
The first thing politicians ask after these tragedies is essentially: “What can we do to limit the freedom of the people?”
And that is the wrong question. The question we should be asking is: “What can we do to nurture and support a people capable of living in freedom?”
Earlier this year I spoke at the NRA convention and reminded a conscientious, patriotic audience that our country’s Founders asked themselves that question and knew the answer. They understood that a free people must either nurture morality or lose their freedom. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Not coincidentally, he wrote that to the officers of the Massachusetts militia when the young republic was on the verge of war with France. He reminded those officers who were charged with leading armed men that the freedoms secured by the Constitution take for granted a decent and civil society.
This isn’t just a question for American society. It’s a civilizational question for all humanity. Margaret Thatcher spoke eloquently of this co-dependence of freedom and morality. She said, “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the Church, the family, and the school.”
I’m reminded of that quote every time I see politicians reach for the easy answers instead of asking the hard questions after tragedies like the one this week. When they seek to strip away our Second Amendment rights instead of suggesting that those who hide behind the First Amendment need to act more responsibly, they are helping freedom destroy itself. When Hollywood glorifies violence with its movies and music, but then underwrites efforts to take away our rights, it is helping freedom destroy itself. When those incorporating virtue into their lives are criticized, mocked, and bullied while pop culture’s kingmakers elevate and celebrate a self-centered “I’ll do what I want and consequences be damned” mentality, those kingmakers and bullies are helping freedom destroy itself. And when We the People shrug our shoulders and duck our heads while society becomes more cynical and our sense of family and community atrophies, we’re all helping freedom destroy itself.
Americans have always had access to firearms. Guns certainly aren’t any more pervasive now than they were back when the Minutemen were stockpiling weapons at Lexington and Concord. But something definitely has changed since then. It’s not the weapons. It’s us.
Instead of rushing to find some magical legislative solution, we need to ask ourselves a few hard questions: Are we creating a culture that can live and thrive in freedom? Do we have bold leaders willing and able to nurture such a culture? Do we have artists whose works reflect and inspire such a culture? Consider the answers to these questions carefully, because, if the answers are no, then we are in much more trouble than any new law can fix.
A decent and moral society is guided by voluntary self-restraint. The less moral we are, the more legalistic we become. But more laws can’t protect a civilization that has lost its way. At most, they’re just tiny speed bumps for a runaway truck.
The solutions we seek won’t be found in the halls of Congress or state legislatures. Might I humbly suggest that we step back from the TV, take a breath, hug our kids, reach out to friends and neighbors, and say a prayer.
— Sarah Palin is the former governor of Alaska and was the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.